Frenetic Paces

The highly charged work of Emily Johnson
Dan Dennehy

Over the past year, Lou Fancher and Emily Johnson, choreographers known for their smart and well-wrought dances, have created works that dive right into emotional maelstroms. In a shared program this weekend at the Southern Theater (the first in the "Momentum Series" cosponsored by Walker Art Center), the two women approach the subject of high anxiety from different perspectives.

"I was interested in the ways bodies move in water, but I didn't think I would wind up making a dance about a shipwreck," says Fancher. Life, however, intervened. After suffering some devastating personal setbacks, including the discovery that her adopted son, who has cerebral palsy, had developed a second major disability, and the news that a good friend was among those who jumped from one of the towers of the World Trade Center, Fancher found her latest work, Plunge, taking on a personal resonance that she could not have anticipated.

A dance that began with some text Fancher discovered on the Internet about the discovery of the sunken ship Vrouw Maria ended up as a parable of survival. "I saw a moment frozen in time: skeletons clawing at the portholes," says Fancher, who used improvisations of dancers underwater (incorporated into the piece as a film) to develop landlocked movement material.

During a recent rehearsal, Fancher issues some scary directives to powerhouse improviser Morgan Thorson and ballet dancer Benjamin Johnson. "You are crazed," she instructs. "Your struggles must have that kind of intensity. You are trapped at the bottom of the ocean in a sunken ship, flailing around in desperation." In response, the dancers lift, hurl, and scurry over one another, interspersing their frenetic maneuvers with flashes of ballet. It's an unsettling (and fascinating) amalgam of styles--like watching a classical pas de deux being invaded by Marine training maneuvers. While the shipwreck story is never literally told, the four performers (Thorson, Johnson, Penelope Freeh, and Mary Ann Bradley) clearly coexist in an extreme environment where they are usually either lurching out of control or obsessively manipulating one another in inventive feats of acrobatic partnering.

By contrast, Johnson approaches her equally charged subject from a more detached perspective. Her Plain Old Andrea with a Gun deals with "a progression as it relates to hate," says Johnson, whose work has been influenced by the storytelling of the native Alaskan Yup'ik people. "The Yup'ik tradition engages the audience through humor and suspense, connecting to us visually, energetically, kinesthetically, and emotionally," says Johnson. The idea is that if people are given the space to tell their stories, the burden is shifted away from the individual and onto the community.

Johnson's saga of hate and its many manifestations unfolds in a series of disjointed scenes that are simultaneously sly and menacing. "Each of the five dancers tells a story of guilt, obsession, and exhaustion," explains Johnson, who employs an idiosyncratic lexicon of gestural movement and a Dadaist approach to storytelling. The five dancers--Natasha Hassett, Melissa Kennedy, Vanessa Voskuil, Arwen Wilder, and Andrea Zimmerman--morph unpredictably from scrappy kids toting toy guns and telling secrets into creepy stalkers and pitiless oppressors. In Johnson's slippery world, a flamenco-dancing Annie Oakley playfully clicks her guns like castanets one minute, and dispassionately manipulates her partner's limbs into tortured positions of submission the next. The extreme juxtapositions add up to an eerie foray into contemporary violence, uncertainty, and paranoia.

Both Johnson and Fancher view their dances as vicarious experiences for their audiences. "If the dancers are connected to the meaning of each movement, the audience will be connected," insists Johnson.

For Fancher, the act of dancing is itself a form of survival: "We're designed physically to rise back up to the surface. Recovery, like dancing, is the ability to get up repeatedly after you are down."

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